The Polar Vortex Has Created a Unique E-Learning Opportunity

With the polar vortex hitting Central Illinois tomorrow, many schools have wisely closed for the day.  In some cases, some schools have actually preemptively closed for several days.

Incidentally, a new Illinois law now allows for “snow days” to be counted as actual “school days” as long as e-learning occurs.  This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for both educators and families.

It’s thrilling for several reasons.  The most universal and obvious reason is because it solidifies the school calendar.  If “make-up days” are now taken out of the equation, families can count on their kids getting out for the summer on a certain date, which will allow for summer plans to commence even sooner.  Of course, while that’s probably the sole reason we can all agree on, it’s not all that beneficial in terms of education.

Another reason that I’m fired up for this is because it keeps learning consistent.  Look, we all understand that students are not going to engage at home like they do in the classroom, and we recognize that teachers are not going to give work to do at home that requires their immediate presence in order to provide explanation, but as long as some kind of learning occurs, that’s a good thing.  My biggest gripe about summer vacation is that so much learning is lost.  Students come back from summer and take weeks to get back into the groove of things and remember what they learned from the previous year.  It doesn’t sound like it should happen, but trust me–it does.  On a much smaller scale, the same thing happens with “snow days.”  So much of education is routine and structure.  By asking students to initiate their education while at home, it keeps them focused, on task, and exercising their minds.

Furthermore, many schools, including my workplace, are now one-to-one.  This means that students in junior high and high school are provided a laptop.  Our district even provides internet services to families who can’t afford it.  We’ve been a one-to-one school for several years now.  I’m exhilarated by the fact that we are moving forward with our technology and encouraging students to use their laptops for explicit educational purposes at home.  Laptops mean that we no longer have to lose out on a day due to inclement weather.

I must admit, though, that I’m being a little selfish.  When our school initiated one-to-one, I created a website for each class that I teach which updates daily.  I particularly did this so that homebound students or students absent due to illness, field trips, college visits, etc., could keep up with us on a day-to-day basis.  Every audio we listen to has a link, every video we watch has a link, every activity sheet we do has a download, every website we visit has a link.  And my class site continues to evolve.  I now take advantage of the District’s educational resources such as BrainPop! and Microsoft Forms to provide even more learning opportunities.  Does it take a ton of work to update three different class websites on a daily basis?  You bet it does.  But it provides the chance for absent students to keep up and learn along with the present students, which is the whole point.  My practice is tailor made for “e-learning days,” and I’m selfishly happy that my efforts are proving fruitful.

This “alternate learning” will take time to perfect, though.  For example, the elementary teachers do not have the benefit of students with laptops.  They cannot contact their students directly via the internet.  They will have to work through their students’ parents or guardians, which complicates matters for everyone, to be sure.  As is often the case, they will have greater demands to meet.

Taking attendance is also an imperfect enterprise at this point.  I won’t go into our district’s plan, but it relies heavily on the “honor code.”  I wish I could tell you that 100% of our students, students’ families, and even educators are honor-bound, but we all know that’s not true.  It’s hard for anything to be 100%.

I also understand that it could prove burdensome for families in terms of childcare.  With this option now legally viable, more and more districts are going to utilize it.  This could result in families having to figure out childcare more often.  I recognize that for some, this is a serious issue and not one to be taken lightly.

Consequently, I’ve heard some educators say that this begins the end of our profession as we know it.  To that I say … maybe?

On the one hand, I don’t believe that “brick and mortar” schools will ever disappear.  As stated above, we provide an invaluable service.  Look, I’m a career educator.  I take this field very seriously.  I take education and learning very seriously.  I have two college degrees.  But, if I’m being perfectly honest, if nothing else, we provide a safe, structured, stable environment where people can send their children while they go to work.  People need “brick and mortar” schools so they have somewhere to send their kids during their shift.  I’m loathe to admit that, but it’s true.  Heck, I praised God the day both of my kids were out of daycare and at the local public school because it freed up a LOT of money that could go elsewhere.

Will our profession change as a result of e-learning at home?  Yes, it probably will.  While common sense dictates smaller classes are better, and while no one should argue against the benefit of an actual, present human being teaching impressionable youth, e-learning could result in larger classrooms with fewer teachers.  Research leads us to believe this would be detrimental to kids, but it’s a likely scenario.

Truthfully, though, I’m a big believer in necessity driving innovation.  We often don’t come up with new ideas unless we have to.  While our district’s educators didn’t get much notice that this would be enacted, and that rightfully proved stressful for some, I personally would much prefer that we dive into the deep end rather than endlessly discuss it for years and years.  Oftentimes, when lives and livelihoods are not at stake, the best way to start something is to simply do it and figure it out as you go.

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 (Did you enjoy this article?  Check out Scott William Foley’s short stories HERE!)

 

 

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“Phasks” – My Latest Short Story On the Nook and Kindle

Phasks: A Short Story by [Foley, Scott William ]

Click “Kindle” To Download

Click “Nook” To Download

They say technology will one day tear us apart, but for some, it will bring us together, especially in the case of two young women traveling to a Jill Thompson fan club meeting. Set in the near future, this short story is optimistic, innovative, and humorous as it propels today’s technological trends to the next level. (Science Fiction/Social Commentary/Technology)

Use AnswerGarden To Grow Your Class

As you’ve heard me discuss before, our school has recently initiated a One to One program.  The idea is that every student has a laptop on loan to them by the district.  They are expected to bring this laptop to every class and to take it home with them every night.

Personally, I love it.  So far it’s gone wonderfully and is exceeding my expectations.

One activity I really like to initiate with the students is real-time word clouds.  They get to plug in a word or phrase and the word appears in a bubble.  The more the word is repeated, the larger it becomes within the bubble.

I wanted my students to visit our class’ “Recommended Readings” page, click on titles that sounded interesting, explore those titles further, then list the final three choices in a world cloud.  I hoped they’d get to see the word cloud formulate in real time while noting what books looked good to their peers.

But, of course, I know that all classes have a few comedians, so I also wanted to retain the ability to remove any irrelevant additions to the word cloud.  After a little bit of research, I settled on AnswerGarden.  (Full disclosure: I was one of those “class comedians” and still am, even as the teacher.)

AnswerGarden does not require students to log in, it can be used by a simple link you give to the students, and it allows the teacher a great deal of editorial abilities.  No, it cannot tell you who exactly posted what, but it does allow you to remove anything you want in real time as soon as any malicious material appears.

I tried it out yesterday and it worked perfectly.  In fact, here’s the word cloud of books my students were most interested in reading …

AnswerGardenBookPicksCloud

(Note: they added a few not actually suggested, but that’s okay.  And yes, I totally recommend Fight Club.  Great book.)

If you’re looking for a simple way for students to experience real time word cloud building, I recommend AnswerGarden.  You will need to open an account to access the editorial control, but it is completely free with no strings attached.

 

A Safer Way To Show Video Content In the Classroom

If you’re like me, there are times when  YouTube proved vital in showing necessary video content in the classroom.  Frankly, though, there have been times when the video in question ended and something inappropriate appeared in the little thumbnail previews they offer pertaining to other content.  I would close it down typically before any students noticed, but it still agitated me that this could be an ongoing problem.

We all use video in nearly every aspect of our lives.  Want to see the hot new trailer for a cool movie coming out?  Go to YouTube.  Want to know how to bake chicken ?  Go to YouTube.  Want a refresher on how to raise your kid’s handlebars?  Go to YouTube.  I love that when studying literature, we can now watch video content that relates to topics introduced by the novel.  I love that my students can go and watch interviews of contemporary authors.

But with my school’s students going One-To-One and each having their own laptop, that ever-present inappropriate preview may prove too tempting for some.  Yet, I want them moving at their own pace through modules and links.  The Internet is fertile with information and provides limitless learning opportunities, but I need a way to make sure students ONLY see the content I intend when I post video links.

That’s where SafeShare.TV comes into play.  I happened across this site when researching resources for the blended classroom.  The idea is that you take a link to any video anywhere on YouTube, run it through their site, and they eliminate advertising and get rid of those distracting buttons everywhere that you tend to see on YouTube.  Is it 100% effective?  No, but any extra level of protection makes me feel better when linking to online video.

You can visit SafeShare.TV by clicking HERE.  Be sure to then click on the FAQ link to learn how it works and how it can bolster your teaching.

I’ve also provided a quick video I made with YouTube then filtered through SafeShare.TV.  You can view the origional YouTube version by clicking the below link …

You can now view the same video through the SafeShare.TV filter …

safeshare.tv/w/fom-BP1LyVQ

Unfortunately, SafeShare.TV does not yet provide the opportunity to embed video within a post.

I hope you found this information useful and feel free to offer feedback in the comments.

 

 

Blended by Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker – A Book Review

Blended (subtitled Using Disruptive Innovation To Improve Schools) entered my world when a representative from Edmentum recommended to my staff that we read it before going one-to-one.

It’s important I provide some background before reviewing this book.  My workplace, where I teach English, is rolling out a new initiative this August in which every single student will be given a laptop to use both at school and at home.  I’ve been teaching since the year 2000, and I’ve been teaching predominately using traditional textbook methods and using mostly whole group instruction.  One-to-one is an incredibly exciting adventure, and I’m very glad to finally reflect the society in which we live, but I’d be lying if I pretended to have any idea where to start with a classroom fully utilizing laptops.

That’s where Blended has been so incredibly helpful.  This book takes a big picture approach to how to utilize blended learning not only in the classroom, but as a school, as a district, even as a culture.  It offers several different models of technology in the school, and it explains which model is probably best suited to your current situation.  It goes into great detail as to why blended learning is vital to the student, and it especially stressed the importance of most student populations having face-to-face time with teachers.  Any teacher fearful of technology replacing them will feel greatly heartened after reading Blended.  It truly values the importance of professional educators working with children and young adults.

I also appreciated that it explained basic terminology, offered some useful websites to help you get started, and provided several anecdotes in each chapter offering real-world examples to illustrate points being made.

This book proved extremely effective at helping me wrap my head around one-to-one, it taught me several different methods I could employ in my own classroom, and it encouraged a positive attitude about technology in the classroom which will help contribute to a productive culture in my workplace.  Best of all?  It straight out tells you that it will not be an easy process and it will take time to find a comfortable method specific to your school and population, but it also explains how to go into blended learning purposefully and strategically.

Though it gets slightly repetitive near the end, I urge you to read this book if you have any questions about one-to-one or blended learning.  Personally, I would consider Blended required reading for any teacher about to embark upon technology in the classroom.

My Tentative Technology Plan Concerning the First Week Of One-To-One

I am so very excited for our school to go One-To-One this August.  If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, the idea is that every student in the school will be given a laptop to use during the school day and to take home.  I’m reading a book called Blended in preparation for this new initiative, and it’s really opening my mind to what a great opportunity this is for students and teachers alike.

I won’t go in-depth about the book as yet, but it’s generally stating the importance of students having somewhere to go (the school), having face-to-face time with a professional adult (the teacher), and having the chance to learn in a personalized fashion that also allows them to move at a comfortable pace.  Thankfully, the whole-group factory model of teaching is now a thing of the past and we can start individualizing education.

How is this possible, you ask?  Our school is using an Edmentum educational software tool called Plato Courseware.  As you know, I’ve written about my limited experience with this software, but so far — I like it!  Of course, I know until I’ve got students in the room I won’t fully grasp my feelings concerning it, but at this point I like the content it provides, the format it uses, and the pace at which it progresses.  Best of all?  You can edit it completely to make it fit your needs.

However, Edmentum won’t be the final answer in my classroom.  I plan to also utilize several different web services including Turn It In and even the Khan Academy.  And that’s just scratching the surface.

So, as I see it, my primary concern at the moment is where do I send my students to start, how do I keep all of this organized, and how do I help my students navigate the various websites and online tools we plan to utilize?

The answer has literally been at my fingertips for over ten years — WordPress.

I’ve spent a decade maintaining a website to promote my fiction, share book and movie reviews, and generally talk about whatever struck my fancy.  I’ve utilized it both as a blog, but there were moments I treated it as a static webpage.

As I ran through all the things I want to achieve, I realized that I’d done it all through my own website.  I know what you’re thinking.  “But, Scott, your website isn’t called WordPress!”  It’s not, but that’s because WordPress allows me to buy a domain name and call it whatever I want.  If you don’t want to buy a domain name, you can still name it whatever you want, but you’ll have “.wordpress.com” at the end of it.

So, here’s the plan. I already have a totally free classroom website set up through WordPress called “Foleyd87.wordpress.com.”  (Check it out if you want, but keep in mind it’s in the middle of a makeover pertaining to this article.)  In the past, I treated it as a place students could go to basically download Word documents from class or to find links to any audio or visual things we covered.  I used it as a static webpage, meaning it really didn’t change from day to day.

Here’s where things get fun.  WordPress allows you to treat it as a daily blog, instead.  That means every time you post something, it shows up at the top of the webpage and it is specific to the date you posted it.

WordPress also allows you link to anything on the web (as you’ve noticed from this writing), it lets you download basically any MS Office tool, you can embed video or audio, you can post polls — you can do a lot.  Probably more than you would expect.

Also, when you post something, you can assign it a category.  This writing, for example, has been designated part of my “Gladly I Learn and Teach” category.  If you wanted to click on that category alone, you would only see those articles belonging to “Gladly I Learn and Teach,” but you would see every article I’ve ever written for that category.  Consequently, if you posted something and used the category “Freshman English,” your freshmen could click on that category and go back indefinitely to anything you ever posted.

I also like that WordPress allows you to post a calendar that will always appear on any update you post.  (You can see it on the lower left of this screen if you scroll down far enough.)  For any dates on which you post, that date will be highlighted.  If you click on that date, it will take you to that day and show you anything posted that day.  Imagine a student is absent.  They can click on the date they missed and see everything you did that day.  Not only that, but if your site is interactive, they can make up the work from home on their One-To-One laptop!

So, my tentative plan is that I will send the students to our class website at the start of every class.  I will have that day’s events at the top of the screen and ready to go.  (Remember, WordPress does this automatically for you, and you can even manipulate the dates of when you want something to appear.  In other words, you can create an entry but set it to appear a week later on a specific date.)  Everything will be embedded or linked.  If I want them to go to Edmentum, I’ll have the specific link ready for them to click on and set to open in a new window.  After that, they can click back on my site and watch an embedded or linked video I need them to see.  I can then link them to a formative assessment tool or guide them to a brain break.  My students won’t be on their laptop the entire period of every period, but for the times they are on the laptop, WordPress fits my needs perfectly.

I have a very rudimentary example set up for you to view if you want to take a look at what I’m talking about.  It’s not meant for students to ever see, but it’s something I’ve been playing with as I experimented.  You can view it here.  You can also explore this site which is also a WordPress site.

You can customize your WordPress site in an almost limitless fashion.  They have free pre-made templates and “looks” ready to go for you, or you can try to build your own (which I don’t recommend unless you’re an expert).  What’s really neat, though, is you can customize their pre-made “looks” to add a little personal touch.

If you work at Bloomington High School, I’d be happy to help you set up a site.  Bear in mind that, like any new technology tool, playing with it is the best teacher.  But I’d be glad to help you get your basic page going.  If you don’t work at BHS, feel free to ask questions in the comments below.

 

 

 

 

I’m Excited About Blended Learning

There’s a trend in public schools right now.  It goes by many names, but the idea is essentially that students have individual computers in the classroom.  I’m a high school English teacher, and my school is implementing this adventurous endeavor in August.  I couldn’t be more excited about what we’ll call blended learning for the duration of this writing.

Before I go any further, my workplace is actually calling this movement “One To One,” but I’m reading a book at the moment recommended by the folks at Edmentum called Blended.  The authors, Michael B. Horn and Heather Staker,  use the term blended learning because the concept is that educators will blend online learning with brick and mortar education facilities.

I’m so excited about our school implementing this new style because, let’s face it, everything we do as a society anymore occurs online.  When I need information, I go find it on the Internet — I’m talking literally any kind of information.  It seems so odd to me that we don’t use the single greatest information tool available in those buildings dedicated to educating the leaders of tomorrow.

I also believe this will be a great opportunity for students to become active learners.  So often, students receive information from us as we deliver it.  We then see if they can regurgitate it back to us exactly as we gave it to them.  But when this occurs, I always question how much critical thinking is actually taking place.  I wonder if I am teaching more than content, am I also teaching the kinds of skills today’s world demands?  Sure, we infuse concepts like critical thinking, collaboration, deductive reasoning, and so on into the lessons, but I can’t wait to see a student independently synthesizing these skills in order to solve a problem of some sort and therefore reach a conclusion.  My hope is that with easy access to the Internet (and careful planning on the teacher’s part), each and every student can demonstrate these skills on a regular basis and improve with each attempt.

Make no mistake, however, I am a card-carrying book lover.  As an English teacher, I will NEVER abandon books in my classroom.  But just imagine — now, as we talk about Shakespeare, we can actually go find information about the man, the historical basis of his works, what Elizabethan England actually looked like, clips of the plays and poems in question … the possibilities are endless!  And every student can take a different path and investigate those things they personally find most interesting!  They can become active learners determining subsets of the content on their own.

Tomorrow’s world needs students able to gather information, assess and critique that information, and then produce a solution based upon that information.  I personally believe blended learning will help us hone those skills.  Furthermore, I’m excited because the interpersonal aspect of the brick and mortar facility remains.  Our students must still learn to collaborate, to communicate, and to coexist.  These are skills also necessary to the future.

Last but not least, I am ecstatic that they will still have me.  I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I am an invaluable resource to my students.  I am their guide, their mentor, their facilitator, and their advocate.  Most importantly, though, I’m their role model.  I take this part of my job very seriously.  Young adults, even seniors in high school, need adults conducting themselves respectably, intelligently, and compassionately.  They can learn all the information there is online, but they still need to learn by watching their elders.  It is vital their elders are worthy of this incredible responsibility.  This fact has remained true throughout history.

Will this transition be easy?  Certainly not.  It will be incredibly difficult both due to the planning aspects as well as the actual technical troubleshooting.  It will be stressful for everyone involved.  However, we will never learn to teach in a blended school without actually doing it.  I mean, that’s the great truth of teaching, isn’t it?  Experience is the most effective way to learn.  I have no doubt we will figure this out, and I am personally glad to be teaching in a manner consistent with the 21st Century!